Arbitrator Can Be Wrong On The Law, And Still Have Decision Upheld

Officer Patrick Brown is a member of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association. Brown was sued by Frank Angelone, who alleged that the off-duty Brown assaulted him during an altercation that occurred outside of the Cleveland Police Department’s territorial jurisdiction. That altercation occurred after Brown, incensed by the antics of the driver of a vehicle that Angelone occupied, followed the vehicle in his personal car, culminating with Brown confronting and assaulting Angelone outside a bar.

Brown demanded that the City provide him with legal representation under a collective bargaining agreement provision requiring the City to assume the litigation costs and provide indemnity for any civil action “arising out of any alleged act while the officer was acting within the course and scope of his duties as an officer.” The City refused Brown’s demand, claiming that it was relieved of the duty to provide legal representation and indemnification because the City’s law director had good cause to believe that Brown’s actions were outside the course and scope of employment.

Brown filed the grievance challenging the City’s denial of his request for legal representation. While the grievance was pending, a federal court ruled in the lawsuit that Brown was not acting under the color of law because “he was not acting as a police officer, but merely engaging in a purely private act.”

Brown’s grievance eventually went to arbitration. An arbitrator determined that an Ohio police officer acts within the course and scope of his duties “if his actions are consistent with and logically related to his employment and his obligation as a peace officer.” The Arbitrator then determined that Brown was acting within the course and scope of his employment as a police officer in the events leading to the altercation with Angelone, although acknowledging that Brown made a number of errors of judgment along the way. Regarding the Court’s opinion that Brown was not acting under color of law, the Arbitrator demurred that “the Court’s decision is insufficient to reach the factual conclusion that the City claims. Moreover, the fact that Brown made no defense during this part of the court proceeding justifies a closer examination of the Court’s opinion and renders its impact less significant.”

The City then challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in state court, arguing that the decision was contrary to the law established in the federal court’s decision. The Ohio Court of Appeals rejected the City’s challenge.

The Court held that “a court can vacate an arbitration award for one of four reasons, all of which relate to the conduct of the arbitrator: Fraud, corruption, misconduct, or exceeded powers. Given the presumed validity of an arbitrator’s award, a reviewing court’s inquiry into whether the arbitrator exceeded his authority is limited. Once it is determined that the arbitrator’s award draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement and is not unlawful, arbitrary, or capricious, a reviewing court’s inquiry for purposes of vacating an arbitrator’s award is at an end.

“We do not review an arbitration award for legal or factual errors. Limited by this very narrow standard of review, we must reject the City’s argument that the Arbitrator’s decision was unlawful because he disregarded the preclusive effect of the federal court’s legal conclusion that Brown was not acting under color of law. Any disagreement we might have with the Arbitrator’s application of the doctrine of res judicata is not a valid basis for vacating an arbitration award. The arbitration award drew its essence from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement because it was based on Brown’s contractual right to have the City provide him with a legal defense for acts arising out of the course and scope of his employment. The Arbitrator’s legal conclusions are therefore immaterial and not a basis for overturning the Court’s refusal to vacate the arbitration award.”

Cleveland v. Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Assn., 2012 WL 6085139 (Ohio App. 8 Dist. 2012).